Cruising SE Alaska – part 3

Leaving Glacier Bay

Mt. Fairweather
Mt. Fairweather 100 miles away in the “ghost mountains.”
When we awoke at Reid Glacier, before visiting Margerie Glacier, we looked out the pilot house window at an iceberg the size of a small house close to the boat – what an eye opener! It was grounded with the falling tide in the night. It happened again the next morning in a different anchorage as we watched a Volkswagen sized berg float close by on the ebbing tide.

In our first three days in Glacier Bay, we rushed to see the most important sights. We had heard from boats ahead of us that some were unable to see much due to fog and rain. Up here they call this the month of ”Fogust” The day we arrived was the first and only day that dawned with bright sunshine which remained until sunset. It was the only day we were able to wear tee shirts and dine in the cockpit since leaving Hawaii, and the only night we did not run our diesel cabin heater since ten days before arriving in Sitka. Fine weather persisted for the entire week we spent in the Bay. Finally, it was time to move on, time to squeeze in a few more sights before this short season draws to a close. The morning we chose to return to the National Park headquarters at Bartlett Cove coincided with the new moon, but we did not pay much attention to that. It was just a short 17 mile run.

Glacier Bay
A Fine Day in Glacier Bay
There had been no wind for sailing at all since arriving in Sitka, so we knew we would be running the engine. It should take less than three and a half hours. Shortly after getting under way, we noticed that our speed over the ground was becoming less and less- 5 knots, then 4, then 3 and finally we were making good less than one half knot! The current was running at more than six knots against us, and we were encountering tidal bores and swirls that swung the boat sharply one way and then the other. We had failed to pay close attention to the current and were now paying the price. We had broken the golden rule of cruising South East Alaska, “Watch the tides carefully.” It took almost seven hours to reach Bartlett Cove.
Admiral Stephanie watching for icebergs
Icebergs and bergy bits everywhere
That night we poured over the Tide Tables, The Tidal Current Book and the chart to carefully plan the next day’s run, 45 miles through a narrow pass to the village of Pelican in the Lisianski Inlet. We left at first light to take advantage of the ebb, and it paid off. On that passage, we reached speeds of more than 13 knots over the ground through the narrows.

Next the boardwalk village of Pelican, and on to the the capitol city of Juneau before heading south for winter storage in Wrangell.

Aloha from Admiral Steph and Captain Howard

Cruising SE Alaska – part 2

The Glaciers

”The Master Builder chose for a tool, not thunder and lightening to rend and split asunder, not the stormy torrent nor the eroding rain, but the tender snowflake, noiselessly falling through unnumbered generations.” -John Muir

Summertime – mid morning temperature 47°, and luckily very little wind as we move from our anchorage directly in front of Reid Glacier in Glacier Bay north to the grand dame of all the glaciers, Margerie. She sports a 200 foot wall of ice above the waterline and extends 50 to 100 feet below. We reached the head of the inlet and found no other boats, no cruise ships, enjoying the drama of the scene alone.
This is the ”Holy Grail” of cruising destinations in Southeast Alaska. The scenery defies verbal description without using all the over-used words, ”glorious, gorgeous, fantastic, awesome, unbelievable, indescribable,” so we will let the pictures describe what we saw and constrain these words to what we experienced.

Surrounding the whole of Glacier Bay and extending beyond the Canadian border are what we called the ghost mountains, The Fairweather Mountains, always white, towering way in the misty background framing the closer views of snow capped cedar and pine covered peaks. We called them the ghosts.

For miles before reaching the glaciers, water color began turning a lighter green and milky, finally losing much of the green next to the glaciers where the glacial melt was highest. Heading the 12 miles up Glacier Bay to the Margerie and Grand Pacific glaciers we encountered more and more ice requiring us to slow down and cautiously dodge the larger bergs to avoid damage. The small ”bergy bits” were too numerous to avoid. The inlet was literally choked with ice bergs in some spots. Fortunately the currents and light breeze seemed to open paths for us, and when we reached the ”toe” of the glacier the ebb tide had cleared all the bergs for us. Even so, we remained half a mile off for safety. Glaciers are born high in the mountains where all precipitation is snow. It never melts, but compresses under the added weight of snows year after year, until gravity starts it moving down – a virtual river of ice. From our vantage, movement was not detected until there was a deep thunderous report, and another every few moments, signaling Margerie’s movement of six to eight feet every day.
(to be continued…)

Cruising SE Alaska – part 1


If quality of life is measured by the people you meet, or the beauty of your surroundings, Sitka qualifies as paradise twice. Bounded on three sides by snow capped mountains, and on the fourth side islands and salt water, with intricate water ways leading in all directions, Sitka is a jewel. Large enough to be convenient, small enough to be personal and friendly, Sitka is also steeped in history and culture, from the native Tlingit (pronounced ”clinket”) people, Russian occupation, and finally the modern American era. Waiting for boat parts gave us two opportunities – lots of sleep, and sight seeing. The Admiral of this ship is a tireless sightseer, while the Captain tries to keep up, with varying success. We walked to most of the visitor sites, and walked, and walked… Just two miles from the harbor, the Indian River cuts right through the Sitka National Historical Park, and flows down to Sitka Sound through a pristine rainforest. Standing on a timber foot bridge we witnessed the Pink salmon run – thousands moving up this 30 to 80 foot wide river against a swift flow in just a few feet of water. Most of the fish appeared not to be moving over the ground, just swimming in place fast enough to overcome the current. But inexorably, they moved up stream to spawn and die. The National Historical Park has several miles of improved trails among historic native sites, some doted with Totem poles both old and recent, poles of many different types with various meanings, and from different villages.

The largest collection of native artifacts in Alaska is displayed in the Sheldon Jackson Museum nearby, and is Alaska’s oldest museum, founded by an American missionary of that name in 1895, while he voraciously collected objects for twenty years.

Our Baptism to Southeast Alaska’s straits and narrows occurred right outside Sitka, as we passed through the Olga and Neva Narrows to Peril Strait through the Sergius Narrows, which is said to be one of the four most treacherous narrows in the entire Pacific rim. We were quite nervous and paid close attention to the tide and current tables, checking and rechecking our calculations to make sure no mistake had been made. What happened was not quite a baptism of fire, but more like a walk in the park. It was flat as a pancake. But then, two miles from our intended anchorage for the night, dense fog drifted in at a narrow spot in Peril Strait. The fog is sometimes thick and patchy and seems to occur without warning. Out of the fog came a trawler fairly close showing bright lights. It all happened so quickly, but then we were glued to the radar until the anchor was down. Next morning we had to wait a while until the fog thinned out enough to creep out of the anchorage.
…To Be Continued

North to Alaska ! The Finish Line



Did I say the Gulf of Alaska? Must have been an error. This is more like the Lake of Alaska. It has been so calm that a few days ago we only made eight miles from noon to noon and could not run the engine. It is now the beginning of day 21, Saturday and the second day of a complete calm, and the fifth day of ever diminishing winds, 66 miles from the harbor at Sitka, and we are dead in the water. On Wednesday we started the engine because the wind was dying. Ten minutes later we found the engine temperature over the top and shut down quickly. After many hours in the engine room, looking for the problem, changing pumps and a lot of bruised knuckles and, yes, a few four letter words, we discovered that the problem which requires a new welded part and is not reparable at sea. The engine can be run for about five minutes without damage, just long enough to reach a dock once in the harbor. But we have to sail all the way in… with no wind.

Late that night a tiny breeze was offered by Aeolus and Neptune. Slowly but surely it increased to a light sailing breeze… making two knots, then three and four and finally during the next day we were up to six at times. Sitka, here we come! But the unknown was whether we could get close enough to the harbor to allow us to run the engine for just a few minutes, long enough to dock and short enough to avoid burning it up. The tide was coming in, and the wind was dying. Right at the opening to the breakwater, the wind went from 1 knot to .9 and finally zero, but Holy Grail drifted in on the tide. We lost steerage too soon, forced to start the engine for a few minutes, then off and coast, on for a few more, then coast. The tension was high, and maybe the blood pressure too. But at the harbor opening we started the engine for the last time rounded the corner and came to rest in the slip assigned by Sitka Harbormaster by radio. He picked a big one for us with easy access, and offered to come tend our lines. Moreover we were right next to a big fishing boat that had arrived just a few hours earlier. We had fresh King Salmon filets for dinner. How’s that for hospitality???
Sitka proved to be an extremely interesting and delightful town, a jewel dropped on the edge of incredible natural phenomena, dramatic scenery we had never seen before.

North to Alaska ! Part three


It was finally July 1 when we left our little R & R anchorage for the second time and headed north, pushing to windward to pass to the east of Maui, and be away from the islands on that first night. The wind spirits banned together to produce an east wind which made for a lovely crossing and an easy sail to clear Maui, and we were off at last! By the next nightfall, the islands could only be detected by the heavy cloud that formed over each. And by the warm land colors of the undersides of those clouds we knew that an island was anchored beneath each one. As we sailed north looking for the end of trade winds and the beginning of temperate latitude westerlies, we skirted the western edge of the Pacific High pressure zone watching the barometer carefully and hourly to make sure we did not sail into the windless high pressure area. A small MahiMahi gave himself to us for three days of delicious meals, and in colder water we began seeing more sea life, first with an escort of false killer whales just 20 or thirty feet abeam and cruising along with us, almost hand in hand, and sea birds too. About that time we also began passing scraps of floating fabric, fish floats, foam, and lumber, more and more of it until we could see several pieces of flotsam at one time any time we looked – a sad reminder of last year’s Tsunami.

Now we are nearing the end of our fifteenth day at sea, wind of 18 knots right astern, sailing with the full main and jib poled out on the windward side making about 6 knots. The night is black, the fourth day of fog, sometimes pea soup dense at sea level, sometimes higher and sometimes wet as rain. The moon was just past full when we left but has now become dark all night. We glide on into the blackness watching radar from time to time, monitoring our new AIS (automatic identification system which warns of ships nearby and continuously gives information of their speed and course), and watch for changes in the wind. Thoughts of a quick passage have long vanished. Light and adverse winds have now persisted for half the trip. Wandering Gypsy (GPS) tells us we have sailed 2055 miles and still have 516 to go to Sitka. And it’s cold. Running a diesel heater every night has the kept the cabin toasty warm while on deck it is in the low fifties. These barefoot Hawaiians are dressing warm and getting used to it.

In the Gulf of Alaska we have had nearly continuous fog, little sun and mostly light winds. At night the trail of bright bioluminescense speaks of the rich nutrients in this cold water. In the dark we hear seabirds calling to each other as we press on. It is now evening of the seventeenth day, a day with nearly sixteen hours of light, 317 miles to Sitka. The wind spirits have favored us today with fair winds up to 24 knots. Holy Grail smells the barn and is sprinting at seven knots to the finish line.

The subtlety of the sea change has never been more highlighted than on this trip. We have transited three major climate zones in a few weeks – tropical, temperate and now polar. Hour by hour the sea changes. An hour ago, the we had six foot following seas that were close together and propelled the boat semi surfing down the face of each swell. We thought storm conditions were brewing, as the barometer has also been falling all day. At this moment, while the wind, cloud cover and barometer are all the same, the seas have flattened to the extent that we do not feel any rise or fall – in the course of one hour. And while changes in sea state and cloud may be harbingers of imminent changes in wind or precipitation, one never knows.

Did I say the Gulf of Alaska? Must have been an error. This is more like the Lake of Alaska. It has been so calm…

to be continued

North to Alaska ! Part two


Then there was the rigging. You know the part that costs more than the hull. In this case I mean all the stainless wires that support the mast. Every one needed to be closely inspected under ultraviolet light for flaws, cleaned and reinstalled. Weeks were spent in a bosun’s chair taking them down and then putting them back up – another five weeks.

By then Holy Grail knew she was going on another adventure. SHE called softly, ”Captain, oh Captain, you’d better clean and flush my dirty water tanks. No, that;s not good enough. Flush them five or six more times so my water is really sweet. My radio does not seem to be working right. You’d better check it. And oh, by the way, while you’re at it, my radar seems a little weak. And you know there is that little problem of sea water getting into my engine oil in a rough seaway, and don’t forget….” SHE called to me all day, every day, and woke me up at night with soft warnings and reminders. Finally SHE became aggressive and would not let the engine start until I found the little problem SHE cooked up just to get my goat. SHE sprung a leak in the toilet pump in an invisible place just to make sure I could not easily find it. SHE created another problem with the generator that took three days to solve. SHE badgered me about this and that until I finally had had enough! We set a date and just left. WE were ready!

The Admiral had been working feverishly to list and provide all the provisions, make sure we had the necessities and the niceties too, clean and reorganize every locker, nook and cranny, and finally document the entire contents of the boat so all those items could be found, while SHE just sat there and waited.

We gave up the slip and sailed thirty-three miles north to a little anchorage in Kohala for a day of R & R before heading across the Alenuihaha Channel between Maui and the Big Island. The forecast was perfect, the best all year for crossing that dreaded channel. After a great day of sunning and swimming, reading and lounging, we were up at two a.m. ready for our new adventure – up anchor, out to sea, turn over helm to autopilot to steer into the wind while we put up the sails… Otto what are you doing? Where are you going? Otto, what’s wrong with you? What the …? But Otto would not respond. After several hours of testing and trouble shooting, we gave up and headed south for Honokohau. Holy Grail had spoken again. We may have been ready, but SHE was not.

It was finally July 1 when we left our little R & R anchorage for the second time and headed north, pushing to windward to pass to the east of Maui, and be away from the islands on that first night. The wind spirits banned together………………. (to be continued)